Navajo candidate disqualified over language fluency challenge

Reuters News
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Posted: Oct 09, 2014 7:36 PM

By David Schwartz

PHOENIX (Reuters) - A finalist to head the nation's largest Native American tribe will not be allowed to continue his candidacy after refusing to prove his fluency in the Navajo language, a tribal official ruled on Thursday.

Tribal law requires that all presidential hopefuls be fluent in Navajo, which U.S. Census estimates show is spoken by a dwindling number of people.

Chris Deschene was ruled against by a hearing officer after he failed to answer in Navajo questions posed to him during proceedings at the tribe's Office of Hearings and Appeals. He has 10 days to appeal to the tribe's Supreme Court.

A spokesman for Deschene did not immediately return messages seeking comment on the ruling, but the candidate told the Navajo Times newspaper he planned to appeal.

The allegations that Deschene is not fluent in Navajo were brought by two defeated candidates in the run-up to the tribe's general election on Nov. 4.

In August, Deschene won a place on the ballot by coming second in a crowded primary to a former tribal president, Joe Shirley Jr. Two defeated contenders then challenged his candidacy and said he lied about his linguistic proficiency.

"This a victory for the Navajo people who are trying to protect tradition and their language," David Jordan, an attorney for one of the pair who brought the challenge, said of Thursday's ruling.

Deschene, who previously served in Arizona's state Legislature, said previously he would keep working to learn Navajo and that if he were elected, he would be fluent by the end of his first term as president.

It was the second time his case has been heard by the tribe's Office of Hearings and Appeals, which earlier dismissed the bid to disqualify him as untimely.

But the Navajo Supreme Court sent it back to the office last month, saying the language requirement should be considered.

Among the most famous Navajo speakers were 29 "code talkers" who developed an unbreakable cipher based on their language that helped Allied forces win World War Two.

Chester Nez, the last survivor of the original group recruited by the U.S. Marine Corps, died in New Mexico in June.

(Reporting by David Schwartz; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Peter Cooney)